BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungary's prime minister told an international assembly of Jews on Sunday that his government has declared "zero tolerance" on anti-Semitism, but his speech failed to impress those gathered who said he has failed to confront the country's largest far-right party.
Addressing the opening session of the World Jewish Congress, Prime Minister Viktor Orban acknowledged that anti-Semitism was on the rise both in Europe and Hungary, attributing it partly to the economic crisis affecting the region.
"Anti-Semitism is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated," Orban told some 600 delegates at the meeting, adding that it was his government's "moral duty to declare zero tolerance on anti-Semitism."
While delegates applauded some parts of Orban's speech on Sunday, the WJC was also quick to express its disappointment that he had not specifically talked about the country's third biggest political force, the far-right Jobbik party, whose politicians in parliament have made numerous anti-Semitic statements.
"The prime minister did not confront the true nature of the problem — the threat posed by the anti-Semites in general and by the extreme-right Jobbik party in particular," the WJC said in a statement. "We regret that Mr. Orban did not address any recent anti-Semitic or racist incidents in the country, nor did he provide sufficient reassurance that a clear line has been drawn between his government and the far-right fringe."
Orban's government, which has been criticized by the European Union and the United States for weakening democratic standards by, for example, overriding court decisions with its two-thirds majority in parliament, has recently tightened laws on hate speech and has banned the use of Nazi and communist symbols in certain instances.
During his first government, between 1998 and 2002, Orban's Fidesz party designated an annual Holocaust memorial day and after returning to power in 2010 banned uniformed groups like the Jobbik-affiliated Hungarian Guard, whose marches in Budapest and countryside villages were meant to intimidate Jews and Hungary's large Roma minority.
Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, asked Orban to confront "dark forces" such as Jobbik.
"Through its anti-Semitism, its hostility to the Roma, and its paranoid rantings at the outside world, Jobbik is dragging the good name of Hungary through the mud," said Lauder, whose maternal grandparents were born in Hungary. "Hungarian Jews ... need you to take a firm and decisive lead. They need you to be pro-active."
Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, also criticized Orban's perceived lack of initiative and called for an outright ban of Jobbik even if it meant curbing democracy.
"He promised a lot, delivered nothing," Kantor told The Associated Press of his meetings with Orban, adding that he would ask the prime minister why he had failed to use his dominance in the legislature to ban Jobbik.
There "should be limits on democracy. It's a very politically incorrect statement ... but it's (what) life demands from us," Kantor said about his wish to outlaw Jobbik. "Otherwise we'll have a disaster."
On Saturday, Jobbik leaders denounced the WJC, whose plenary session was being held outside Israel only for the second time since 1966 to focus attention on rising anti-Semitism in Hungary and across the continent.
Jobbik lawmaker Marton Gyongyosi, who said last year said that Jewish lawmakers and cabinet members could pose a national security risk, said the WJC meeting was an "open provocation" against Hungary.
"Our country is under Zionist subjugation, the targeted colony of Zionism where we, the local citizens, play, at most, a small part," Gyongyosi told a crowd of around 1,000 people. "Only a show of strength is effective against the unscrupulous Zionist advance."
The party's president, Gabor Vona, said Hungarians would not "lick the feet" of Jews.
"Israeli conquerors, investors and expansionists should look for a country in another part of the world because Hungary is not for sale," said Vona, whose party won nearly 17 percent of the vote in the 2010 elections.
Some 550,000 Hungarian Jews were killed during the Holocaust, while the around 100,000 living here now make up the largest Jewish community in Eastern Europe.